S5, Ep. 15: Black America’s changing religious landscape

Dr. Sabrina E. Dent and Dr. Anthony Pinn talk about bringing Black Church leaders and Black nontheists together.

Feb 8, 2024

Much is said and assumed about the religious landscape of Black America, but it’s more diverse than the common narratives. Holly Hollman speaks with Dr. Sabrina E. Dent and Dr. Anthony Pinn about misconceptions and how they brought together Black Church leaders and Black nontheists for key conversations. Tune in for this open and honest conversation about how we can work across racial and religious lines to help all communities thrive.

Segment 1 (starting at 00:35): Misconceptions about the religious landscape of Black America

Dr. Anthony Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities at Rice University, and he’s also the Founding Director of Rice’s Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning. He is the author/editor of more than 35 books, and he is also director of research for the Institute for Humanist Studies. Read Dr. Pinn’s full biography here.

Dr. Sabrina E. Dent is the director of the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation, which is the home of our project on Race and Religious Freedom. Learn more about the Center on our website and in this video. She is the editor and contributing author of the book African Americans and Religious Freedom: New Perspectives for Congregations and Communities. Read Dr. Dent’s full biography here.

“(Dis)belief: Reimagining the Religious Landscape of Black America” was the topic for the 2023 Religious Freedom Mobile Institute. Click here to read about it in a piece by Jaziah Masters, Research Fellow for the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation. 


Segment 2 (starting at 20:13): The connections between religious freedom and racial justice

BJC’s “Religious Freedom Has Been White Too Long: Voices of Black Scholars” was BJC’s 2021 lecture featuring Dr. Anthony Pinn, Dr. Nicole Myers Turner, Dr. Teresa L. Smallwood, and Dr. David Goatley. Watch the event at this link and read a recap on our website.

James Baldwin wrote in The New York Times on Feb. 2, 1969, that the bulk of the country’s white population is beyond hope of moral rehabilitation. “They have been white, if I may so put it, too long.”


Segment 3 (starting at 30:23): Key moments from the conference

As mentioned, Dr. Dent and Dr. Pinn will be co-editors of a forthcoming book of essays from the participants in the conference. Keep up with BJC and the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation for the latest!

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.

Transcript: Season 5, Episode 15: Black America’s changing religious landscape (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)

Segment 1: Misconceptions about the religious landscape of Black America (starting at 00:35)

HOLLY: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Holly Holman, general counsel at BJC.

Today we’re going to talk about the changing religious landscape of Black America. This topic, of course, is related to a conversation we hear about religion in America very often: how the religious landscape is changing and how that might affect public policy.

What does it look like to bring together Black Church leaders and Black nontheists for a dialogue? BJC hosted an event in October 2023 that did just that. We’ll explore these issues, and we’ll talk about the connections between the work of religious freedom and racial justice.

I’m joined today by my colleague Dr. Sabrina Dent and Dr. Anthony Pinn. Welcome to both of you.

DR. DENT: Good to be here.

DR. PINN: Wonderful to chat with you.

HOLLY: Dr. Sabrina Dent is the director of the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation, which is the home of our project on race and religious freedom. She’s the editor and contributing author of the book African Americans and Religious Freedom: New Perspectives for Congregations and Communities.

Dr. Anthony Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities at Rice University, and he’s also the Founding Director of Rice’s Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning. He’s the author or editor of more than 35 books, and he’s also director of research for the Institute for Humanist Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

You can learn much more about our guests today through links in our show notes. So I’m really glad to have both of you with us today, so let’s get this conversation started.

Could you begin with an overview of the religious landscape of Black America? I know people often make assumptions, but I’d like to hear from you about how you see the landscape and a bit more about the diversity of religion within the Black community and how it’s changing.

DR. PINN: I think there’s a common assumption based upon statistical information that Black folks are more religious than any other population in the United States. A high percentage of African Americans, when asked, say they are religious. Now, the questions that prompt that response, though, are rather narrow. They don’t get into the details of any particular tradition, so a large percentage of African Americans say they believe in God. Now, what they mean by that is an open question.

I think what is happening is a greater awareness of the complexities of the religious landscape of Black America. It’s always been diverse. Nonbelievers have always existed. Right? There’s always been this complexity. We’ve just been slow to recognize it, that we looked at Black communities and tried to understand them, interpret them, only through the lens of the Christian faith. Anything that didn’t fit that got wiped out.

But this complexity has always existed. I think what you have is an increase in the number of folks who are willing to say, no, I can’t get with that; I don’t believe that. Right? I’m a nonbeliever. I’m a humanist. I’m a secular humanist. I’m an atheist, what have you. That the number of folks who are willing to say this publicly has increased. It extends beyond the select few.

I think it’s also important to detangle this a bit, that there is a deep reliance on the Black Church, but not all of that is theologically driven, that if you think about the history of Black churches, they were also a somewhat safe space — right? — in that they were concerned with educational opportunities, cultural advancement, political information, that they performed a lot of functions beyond trying to save souls.

And so when we talk about a reliance on Black churches and Black churches represent the dominant theistic expression in Black communities, when we talk about those churches, for some folks, it’s about getting the soul right. For others, it’s making their way through the world. And there’s complexities there.

So I like to think about it this way. After the Civil Rights Movement, there was a decline in church participation. It hit Black churches hard, but it hit all churches within the context of the United States — a decline in church membership, church involvement. There isn’t an uptick in Black communities until roughly the ’80s. And it involves in large part the Black middle class coming back to churches.

Now, they had played by the rules after the Civil Rights Movement. They were told, speak English properly; live in the right neighborhoods; go to the right schools; dress the right way; belong to the right organizations; and the American dream can be yours. And what they discovered was race still mattered.

And in the process, they had given up so many social and cultural connections, heritage. And they went back to Black churches in large part to reconnect. We can’t assume all these folks had the same relationship to the theology being preached. For a whole lot of folks, the Black Church was a space in which they could catch their breath.

Nobody asked them why they were angry. Nobody came up touching hair without permission. They could make social and business and political connections. Right? It fueled all of that. But we also have an uptick in other organizations that are providing these same avenues for success and belonging and well-being. We reach a point where you can’t assume that the Black minister is the best educated person in that community. Right?

So there are other ways in which Black folks can express themselves, and connected to this, it seems to me, there’s an uptick in the number of Black folks who become willing to articulate their disbelief, to say that they are not a part of this. Right?

And then connected to this, you have the development of a fascination, a deep commitment to African-based traditions, to the nation of Islam, et cetera.

All of this is to say religion in the context of Black communities has always been big, complex, and composed of competing claims, some of them sure enough theistic in orientation, and a whole lot of them more humanistic in orientation. But we tend to boil it down to the Black Church, because they’ve had good PR.

DR. DENT: Mmmm, right. And also I’m thinking about the diversity that exists within the Black religious landscape. We can’t forget those that are Black Muslims, that are Black Baha’is and Black Jewish individuals as well. And I say that because it’s critical to really think about the nuanced positions and the way in which we all approach life. But at the end of the day, these issues impact us, no matter what we believe.

HOLLY: Let’s talk about this event that really unpacked some of these ideas. You two organized, “(Dis)belief: Reimagining the Religious Landscape of Black America,” and you brought together Black church leaders and nontheists together for an in-depth and, I would say, quite vulnerable conversation. Tell us a little bit about how that came to be.

DR. DENT: It was a opportunity for us to really work intentionally with Dr. Anthony Pinn and the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning, and thinking about these very critical conversations that need to happen between Black theists and Black nontheists about how we show up in the world and our systems of belief. Do they really present barriers for us to move forward as a society in taking care of our social justice and needs and concerns?

It was a necessary conversation, to really bring our community together, as we have described it many times, as a family conversation, because it’s a conversation that’s really about the Black community but for us to look at the issues that we face as Black people, no matter what we believe or don’t believe.

And that’s the thing about it. That’s why race is critical to this conversation, because in society, when our community is being targeted for any particular issue, no one is stopping to ask us what we believe. They look at the color of our skin. They make the assumptions about our communities.

And so for us to have this conversation with Black church leaders and Black nontheists, to really talk about how do we get beyond this particular barrier, to really talk about the root issues that impact our community and come together is such a powerful and necessary thing.

DR. PINN: I think, just as a matter of context, I think there are a couple of problems that we’ve been reluctant to address but that we have to acknowledge and address. One is we’ve fallen for the okey-doke. We’ve assumed that difference is a problem to solve as opposed to an opportunity. And that has created a certain type of posture in Black communities that made conversation difficult, if not impossible.

It seems to me we’ve also failed to recognize that no one orientation within this community has won the day.

DR. DENT: Right.

DR. PINN: Black theists didn’t change the social world. We are not experiencing justice because of theists, and we are not experiencing wholesale justice because of nonbelievers. Right? So none of these communities have been able to do this work alone. So it’s probably time for us to figure out how to appreciate our differences, but also figure out how to work together.

And so I think for us this conversation was an experiment on that. Right? How do we come together and talk in a way that doesn’t wipe out our differences.

DR. DENT: Right.

DR. PINN: But also doesn’t allow our differences to stifle engagement.

HOLLY: Tell me, you know, what you learned about how difficult it is to create that environment and anything that you did that really helped that, kind of helped break down issues of mistrust.

DR. PINN: I think with the conference, it was easier because we handpicked. So the folks we invited knew us.

DR. DENT: Right.

DR. PINN: They have experience with us. And so that trust was already built in. Right? They knew we weren’t playing games. They knew this was not “gotcha” moments. They knew that no particular orientation was going to be attacked. They knew us well enough to know that we were sincere and genuine in this, and that we were interested in showing up for conversation.

I think the challenge for us will be, how do we extend this.

DR. DENT: Right.

DR. PINN: How do we engage beyond the usual suspects? I think one of the lessons we learned from this is the kind of complex and rich conversation, the kind of messy engagement we’re eager to have requires a different language of relationship.

I think a lot of nonbelievers and a lot of nontheists make use of the language of science. Right? And that rules out a whole lot, that science doesn’t necessarily help us get at the more affective or emotional dimensions of life.

And I think a whole lot of religious folks use a theology that narrows possibilities and cuts out folks who can’t get in line with those particular theological planes. Right? So the language of salvation don’t work for everybody. The language of sin don’t work for everyone.

So we need to develop a language that better humanizes us, that involves risk, that involves creativity, that allows us to imagine beyond the familiar.

DR. DENT: And so our goal is also — as Anthony said, how do we move beyond this conversation to do the deeper work that needs to happen in society to help all of our communities to thrive?

DR. PINN: Yeah.

DR. DENT: It doesn’t make sense if only one community is thriving and the others are left behind.

DR. PINN: I think identity is so connected to belief structures that it becomes a “zero sum” game. If you’re right, I’m wrong. And that being wrong is so tied to identity that it just becomes inconceivable — right? — that the ability to understand that there are other ways to move through the world and these other ways to move through the world are just as correct becomes really difficult. Only one of us can be right. Right? There can only be one.

And so it seems to me part of what has to happen is a breaking down of that mindset. And I think one of the ways in which it happens is what took place with our conference, that folks are humanized.

DR. DENT: Yes.

DR. PINN: It doesn’t matter what they believe, but part of the process involved humanizing people.

DR. DENT: Yes.

DR. PINN: It moves beyond the problematic other.

DR. DENT: Right.

DR. PINN: Recognition of our shared humanity.

HOLLY: BJC’s Jaziah Masters wrote a piece about this conference, and he said that many of the speakers pointed out how concerns for the well-being of Black people have been underreported. And I’ll quote him here.

He said, “Black well-being concerns the soul, the body, mental health, and even spiritual practices. The symposium brought forward all these experiences. When we see belief and disbelief in conversation together, we know that humanity, something long denied to Black people, is an ecosystem. All the components overlap, feed and depend on each other for the survival of the whole.”

Can you share more about how you see that and the ecosystem that impacts Black Americans and how that is one in which you’ve seen the denial of humanity that continues to impact communities.

DR.  DENT: Yes. There are so many different ways this issue impacts all of the Black community. And I see it in the work that we do through BJC and some of the issues that we address.

One of the things that I think about that most concern me is right now voting rights and the way in which people have the ability to exercise their right in democracy — right? — in this democracy, to make decisions about health care, to make decisions about public schools and their families, when that could be targeted and become an issue within our society, when just last year alone there were 356 voting restriction bills that were introduced and how people have the right to vote, whether it was voter IDs. Whatever it was, it has impact on communities.

And so when you’re talking about communities being impacted, about how they’re able to show up and vote for the people that they believe are making decisions in their best interests, so I think of this as — you know, this is about to show my religious side — right? But I think about this — I think of the song, “I Need You to Survive.”

The reality of it is within our community, we need one another, so we don’t need to be divided on an issue that is nuanced in a way that really causes more harm to the person that’s against a particular thing or idea. It’s about really coming together and reaffirming our humanity.

That larger ecosystem of our existence here within the United States — right? — it requires that we come together. But if we allow people that have not lived our experiences, have not walked in the shoes of our ancestors, to then cause division based on policies or assumptions, then that puts us all in a very vulnerable position to not thrive.

For me, all this comes together to look at that ecosystem and really to think of it — I think of it like this: Where we are right now is in a triage moment. Right? When something is in a triage situation, it is an emergency situation where they’re trying to pinpoint what exactly is the issue and really trying to address it and find out, what are some of the best ways to deal with it. And it happens at multiple levels.

What we’re seeing right now in terms of our community might not necessarily understand some of the things that are happening as far as racial justice issues through the lens of the language of Christian nationalism, but we know what racial injustice looks like. And so it’s like how do we talk about our community and these issue through the lens of religious freedom, for people to understand like the connection to ways that we can bring about some healing and some change, not just on a superficial level but in terms of public policy, because we know policy is what drives society.

DR. PINN: Holly, as you were asking the question, what came to my mind was that haunting line from W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. “How does it feel to be a problem?”

DR. DENT: Yes.

DR. PINN: It’s quite clear from the very beginning, one of the questions that has animated the development of the United States involves whether or not Black folks are fully human.

DR. DENT: Right.

DR. PINN: And how do Black folks rightfully occupy time and space. And there’s no mystery that this is the case if you think in terms of our enslaved ancestors being understood in terms of property law — right? — that this has been the ongoing preoccupation within the United States. What is the proper place of these people? And are these people fully human? What are they entitled to?

And the ramifications have been significant. Right? The impact is political, economic, cultural. The impact informs and influences every dimension of our individual and collective lives. And it seems to me religion and disbelief are at their best when they recognize that oppression, that injustice is weblike in nature and that you cannot pick particular elements of this, try to resolve them and think you’ve done something. Right? That it requires attention to the complexities, attention to how this all comes together.

And, again, believers and nonbelievers are at their best when they advocate a moral and ethical sensibility that makes it extremely difficult to normalize misery.


Segment 2: The connections between religious freedom and racial justice (starting at 20:13)

HOLLY: We often talk on this podcast about BJC’s work protecting faith freedom for all. But, of course, that work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It often overlaps with the work for racial justice. Sabrina, would you share how those two concerns, religious freedom and racial justice, are connected and often overlap?

DR. DENT: So it is critical that we talk about pressing issues of racial justice within the context of talking about religious freedom for all. One of the things that I go back to immediately is thinking about something that Tony said about being human and what it means to be human and what does it mean to have those rights.

And so when we’re talking about faith freedom for all and you think about historically the context around the founding framers really working on religious freedom, in order for you to have that right, you had to be human. So that means everything that came after that was an add-on. It was like you were second in thought.

And so what does it mean now to reclaim like a right to be human and to have whatever belief system that you hold and think about that in terms of the ways in which we have to address the current issues that we see in society right now?

Can our children walk down the street without being shot or being harmed or being targeted? Can our women go to the doctor and get the health care that they need without not being believed in what they say, if they’re experiencing pain or whatever? So we have to address it.

And so that goes back to what people believe. What are your belief systems that you hold about individuals and their rights and their right to show up in society? And so we can’t talk about faith and freedom without addressing the human freedom that needs to exist within the context of that conversation.

DR. PINN: I think that’s absolutely right. Although there is tremendous disagreement across religious traditions, I would argue that regardless of those theological differences, religious traditions share an understanding that they have a commitment to enhance our humanity.

To advance our humanity, to make that more robust. And I don’t know how you do that if you don’t take seriously and address the issues that damage our humanity.

HOLLY: When you tell people you work on religious freedom, what kind of misconceptions do you often get?

DR. PINN: I think people often confuse religious freedom with “My position is dominant.” And so there are a couple of things. One, for a lot of folks, they just think that this is bizarre. Why would this secular humanist be interested in religious freedom? It goes against the narrative — right? — that secular humanists are supposed to be about the business of padlocking churches, mosques, and synagogues.

And so that just kind of creates a dissonance for them. They’re not certain what to make of that. A secular humanist interested in religious freedom? But I think on the other hand, for a lot of folks, they hear that statement only in relationship to their tradition — right? — because their tradition is right.

HOLLY: It’s religious freedom “for me.”

DR. PINN: For them.

HOLLY: “I don’t know what you other people are talking about.” Yeah.

DR. PINN: Right. So they confuse “religious freedom” with dominance of public space. And my thing is the Constitution guarantees you the right to practice what you want to practice, so spend your Friday, Saturday, Sunday however you want. I will applaud that.

But when it comes to public space, when it comes to democratic conversation, we need a language, a grammar and vocabulary of relationship and collective life that isn’t bound to any one tradition. Right? So I want to celebrate what folks do, how they engage, whatever they understand as being bigger than themselves. I want to applaud that. But I also want to safeguard a public that is more complex and more diverse than any one tradition.

HOLLY: That word “public” is also such an important word in that sometimes people perceive that in different ways. And what I hear you saying is you’re not afraid to have a public conversation about all kinds of things, meaning outside of your mosque and synagogue and home, but what you do want is to preserve in government spaces something that can bring us all together, and that’s not going to be religion. It’s not going to be religion.

DR. PINN: I think public life, political life — right? — the inner workings of our democracy requires something more robust.

DR. DENT: Yes. I appreciate what Dr. Pinn shared in his reflection on it. I would say when I speak to people and share that I do religious freedom work, people are often confused. And depending on who I talk to, sometimes they put more effort in trying to figure out what I believe in terms of my theological or spiritual beliefs versus really understanding that I’m really fighting and advocating for everyone to believe or not believe and show up however they choose in the world according to their conscience.

And sometimes it is very frustrating, especially being a Black woman in America. As we talked about earlier on, when the assumption is that I should identify as Christian and a certain type of Christian, that causes moral injury to me in the moment.

So I find it a lot of times that the work that I do, I’m really passionate about it because of the people that I know, the communities that I care about — and that is very expansive — and the people that I hold in care and that hold me accountable.

And what I mean by that is sometimes I’ve learned that that community of care might not look like me, but because I care about my community — and when I say, my community, this moment, when I care about the Black community the way that I do, that because someone responds differently or negatively to what I do as part of my vocation, what I do as part of what I believe is my call, I can’t let that stop me from really doing the work, to continue to advance the work of protecting and advancing faith freedom for all and helping people to really understand that it is critically important that we value that what is written in the First Amendment and that we value church-state separation for the fact that it protects all of us. It allows all of us to thrive.

And so we need to get to a place in society where people are not just looking at the words and saying, oh, this is here. But it’s like, how are we embodying that and living that in our lives? And for me, it’s about living it, so if people don’t understand, they’re confused about it, let them be, because I’m going to continue to do the work that I believe that is necessary for human beings to thrive and to be dignified in society.

HOLLY: At BJC, we’ve long worked across racial lines, though admittedly imperfectly. And we’ve acknowledged how religious freedom, that is, understandings of religious freedom and expressions of it, have been, quote, “white too long.” And we actually did a virtual lecture series tied around that idea in 2021. Dr. Pinn, that’s when I first met you, and you were part of that event.

Of course, that phrase is a famous one. It comes from James Baldwin in 1969 in his observation that the bulk of the country’s white population is beyond hope of moral rehabilitation. He said, “They’ve been white, and if I may put it, too long.” What does it mean to both of you to say that something is “white too long”?

DR. DENT: White fragility is real, and so I think a lot of times, people cannot deal with historically what has happened or what has transpired and has been done by their ancestors. And so there is this notion of, I didn’t do this. And it’s, I’m not saying you did this, but I need you to acknowledge the history of what has happened to this particular group of people, and let’s figure out ways to work together to move it forward.

So when you’re getting away from it being white too long, it means that the narratives and the perspectives are expanding and that we’re engaging in real honest truth-telling about those communities that have been most impacted and most harmed for the ways in which — some of the ways in which the founding framers set up this country.

DR. PINN: I’ll say a secular “Amen” to all of that. I think in part what Baldwin is getting at, it has nothing to do with our physical look. He’s not telling folks to go get a tan. Right? He’s talking about the kind of ideas that have shaped and informed this nation, what has been considered normative. Right?

And so it seems to me what he’s being extremely critical of, and rightfully so, is the way in which white supremacy and white privilege has defined the nation. White privilege and white supremacy have become normative structures, and as a result, everyone else and everything else is expendable, that everything functions for the well-being of the dominant population.


Segment 3: Key moments from the conference (starting at 30:23)

HOLLY: Before we close, we can’t leave this program without talking a little bit more about the specifics from the conference that you all brought together late last year.

As we mentioned, it was called “(Dis)belief: Reimagining the Religious Landscape of Black America.” And it was a live, two-day event, bringing together church leaders, scholars, authors, nontheists, and others. One outcome of the conference will be a book of essays, edited by the two of you, and I know our listeners will want to check that out in the future.

But for now, tell me. Were there some key moments in those conversations that really showcased what it means to bring such a diverse group of people together?

DR. DENT: Yes. For me personally, I think there were several moments. I think during Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson’s presentation, when she highlighted the testimonies and the experiences of young people in public schools that have experienced religious discrimination because of how they show up in the world as nonbelievers, and those stories were important to be conveyed to the audience and for us to hear, especially when we think about Black youth and youth of color that are often targeted for many different reasons.

But add on layers in terms of nonreligious belief or even being a member of the LGBTQIA community — right? — they get targeted so much more. There is a higher rate of depression. There is data that points to that. And so for Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson to really share — not just talk about their experiences but actually share the video clips of these young people sharing their experiences, really touched me.

Or even when Dr. Teddy Reeves did the interview with the gentleman from the gOD-Talk series who talked about how his identity as a nonreligious person has led him to be isolated.

And the thing is, the concern for me is the larger concern for human dignity and for humanity, that no one should have to live life in isolation because they choose to follow their conscience or beliefs.

But then also thinking about the narrative of Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman when she was talking about her experience within the Black Church and then how there needs to be moral courage to really address the issues that we see happening in our community within that context boldly and unapologetically.

Those were the things that stood out to me, so it goes back to, for me, what Dr. Pinn talked about at the beginning of how I do see religion as a set of beliefs and behaviors, but at the same time, I see it as one element that’s a part of the larger scheme of how I live and navigate life with care for humanity.

And so hearing those stories, for me as a public scholar, speaks more about why these conversations needs to happen more often, more frequently, and more honestly, but also as a mother that is concerned about future generations that are often depressed or feel isolated because of how they show up in the world and what they believe about themselves cause me greater concern when I know the larger world is already coming after them.

DR. PINN: I was going to mention some of those. You beat me to the punch! I think what I found most valuable about our time together was actually the Q&As after the talks. The talks were wonderful, but they’re monologues.

DR. DENT: Yes.

DR. PINN: Right? And what I really appreciated about the Q&A was that they highlighted and celebrated vulnerability.

During the Q&A, folks were willing to talk about what went well within their religious communities and what those communities didn’t do well. Nonbelievers were willing to talk about what nonbelievers got right and what they didn’t get right. And it seems to me that kind of vulnerability opens the door for rich engagement and collaboration. So for me, that was the most unique element of our time together, that we don’t get that very often, that kind of vulnerability.

HOLLY: Yeah. And that requires trust. Right? And so I think that goes back to, Dr. Dent, what you said about how important it was to bring together a mix of people who were willing to do that and, you know, to give each other some space and to listen and not be defensive, but to try to — to really try to seek understanding.

We talked about how difficult it is to have these hard conversations, but I got the sense also that it was very valuable. What was it that gives you the most hope coming out of that conversation?

DR. DENT: For me it was the conversations or the feedback that we received from the audience, from those that were watching, that weren’t necessarily directly in the dialogue but had the benefit of listening to the insights and the wisdom from the different presenters.

And for them to walk away with perspectives of thinking about religious freedom differently than how they understood it before and to really pause and see the role that they could play in society just by listening to another person’s perspective, that gives me a lot of hope for the future.

It gives me hope also when I know that there are people that are willing to take the risk and make the commitment to do something different than what their community expects of them. So that opens the gateway for us to do things that we only hope to imagine for our future and even for our present.

HOLLY: I don’t know if people listening to this have seen you, Professor Pinn, but I know you have sort of a sly smile. And I want to ask if behind that smile might be a little bit of hope that you would leave for us today.

DR. PINN: Yeah. You know, I’ve given up a fair amount of my former theological vocabulary, and one of the terms I’ve given up is “hope.” Rather than hope, I talk in terms of the persistence of possibility.

I don’t know that any of our excellent work will win the day. Right? I don’t know that this will fundamentally change the nature of our nation. But it seems to me this sort of work gives us new tools for the struggle and that at the end of the day, the victory may be as simple as our ability to say “no” to injustice through new and more impressive theological languages — right? — to be able to say no to injustice in new ways. And that, again, may not win the day, but it might make it more difficult to normalize misery.

HOLLY: Thank you, both of you, for your words today, this conversation time, and the work that you do day in and day out.

DR. DENT: Thank you.

DR. PINN: Thank you.

HOLLY: That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks to you, our listeners, and thanks to Dr. Dent and Dr. Pinn for joining us. For more information on the topics we discussed, visit our website at RespectingReligion.org for show notes and a transcript of this program.

This episode of Respecting Religion is produced and edited by Cherilyn Guy with editorial assistance from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons.

Learn more about our work at BJC, defending faith freedom for all, by visiting our website at BJConline.org. And you can email the show by writing to [email protected]. We’re also on social media @BJContheHill, and you can follow Amanda on X, which used to be called Twitter, @AmandaTylerBJC.

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